Tuesday, August 13, 2019

J.R. Schieffer (1931-2019): quantum many-body theorist

Bob Schrieffer died last month, as reported in a New York Times obituary.

Obviously, Schrieffer's biggest scientific contribution was coming up with the variational wave-function for the BCS theory of superconductivity.
BCS theory was an incredible intellectual achievement on many levels. Many great theoretical physicists had failed to crack the problem. The elegance of the theory was manifest in the fact that it was analytically tractable, yet could give a quantitative description of diverse physical properties in a wide range of materials. BCS also showed the power of using quantum-field-theory techniques in solid state theory. This was a very new thing in the late 50s. Then there was the following cross-fertilisation with nuclear physics and particle physics (e.g. Nambu).

Another significant contribution was the two-page paper from 1966 that used a unitary transformation to connect the Kondo model Hamiltonian to that of the Anderson single impurity model. In particular, it gave a physical foundation for the Kondo model, which at the time was considered somewhat ad hoc.
John Wilkins wrote a nice commentary on the background history and significance of the Schrieffer-Wolff transformation.
The SW transformation is an example of a general strategy of finding an effective Hamiltonian for a reduced Hilbert space. This can also be done via quasi-degenerate perturbation theory. In different words, when one ``integrates out'' the charge degrees of freedom in the Anderson model one ends up with the Kondo model.

There is also the Su-Schrieffer-Heeger model, that is related to Heeger's Nobel Prize in Chemistry. However, although this spawned a whole industry (that I worked in as a postdoc with Wilkins) its originality and significance is arguably not comparable to BCS and SW.

Because of when he was born, like many of the pioneers of quantum many-body theory, Schrieffer may have been born for success?

I am somewhat (scientifically) descended from Schrieffer because I did a postdoc with John Wilkins, who was one of Schrieffer's first PhD students. My main interaction with Schrieffer was during 1995-2000. Each year I would visit my collaborator, Jim Brooks, at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, and would have some helpful discussions with Schrieffer. During one of those visits, I stumbled across a compendium of reprints from a Japanese lab. [This was back in the days when some people snail-mailed out such things to colleagues]. It had been sent to Schrieffer and contained a copy of a paper by Kino and Fukuyama on a Hubbard model for organic charge transfer salts. That was the starting point for my work on that topic.

1 comment:

  1. He also killed someone falling asleep at the wheel while driving on a suspended license. He was sent to prison for two years.